ISTANBUL: In the presence of the UAE leadership, Manchester City joined footballing royalty as they became the kings of Europe.
Finally, they had their Champions League — the trophy craved by their Abu Dhabi owners, manager Pep Guardiola, players and fans.
A tense 1-0 win over Inter Milan in Istanbul confirmed their status as Europe’s elite club for the first time — and sealed a famous Treble, having already won the Premier League and FA Cup this season.
Watching in the stands at the Ataturk Olympic Stadium were Mohammed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, president of the UAE and ruler of Abu Dhabi, and his brother Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, deputy prime minister of the UAE, whose 2008 takeover transformed City.
It was August, 2010, when Sheikh Mansour was last seen at an official City game and Liverpool were beaten 3-0.
If ever there was a moment for him to attend again, this was it. It was the culmination of everything that he and City have strived for — and their fans have dreamed of for generations, when they were in the lower reaches of English football.
“My congratulations and gratitude to our loyal Manchester City fans, and everyone at the club, including management, technical staff and players,” said Sheikh Mansour on Twitter. “We will continue to define and celebrate our success together.”
For so long City have lived in the shadow of neighbors Manchester United, who were the only other English club to achieve the Treble back in 1999 and are three-time European Cup winners.
Now City stand above United, writing successful chapters season upon season and playing a style revered worldwide.
There will be those who say their glory is tainted due to Financial Fair Play charges and investigations from UEFA and the Premier League.
But as tears flowed on and off the pitch and Guardiola hugged and embraced like he was departing, nothing will take away this defining moment. It will be forever.
“One of the main reasons why this club became what we are is the people from Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Mansour, took over the club,” said Guardiola, whose first Champions League win as a manager since 2011 left him just one short of Carlo Ancelotti’s record mark.
“Without that we won’t be here — they are the most important people.
“They support me unconditionally in the defeats in this competition. In many clubs that would happen and you are sacked, so I give incredible credit to my hierarchy, to my CEO (Khaldoon Al-Mubarak).”
The Spaniard, who joined City in 2016, felt it “was written in the stars” that City would triumph and it will not matter that their nervy, cagey performance may not be remembered so much.
Stifled by Inter’s aggression and defensive tenacity, City struggled to find fluency in their game and played within themselves, perhaps under the burden of expectation.
“The pressure was there, but this team is built to handle the pressure in the best possible way,” said captain Ilkay Gundogan, who has still not made a decision on his future.
They lost the talismanic Kevin De Bruyne in the 36th minute to a hamstring injury. He looked forlorn, praying it would not be a repeat of their last final two years ago against Chelsea.
In the 2021 final, De Bruyne then suffered a fractured nose and eye socket when he was caught by Antonio Rudiger and went off in the 1-0 loss to the Blues.
City were subdued in Porto that night and subdued until the 68th minute by Inter.
That was when Manuel Akanji played a lovely ball inside for Bernardo Silva, whose cross was deflected into the path of Rodri.
The Spaniard’s strike was smooth and sumptuous, arrowing into the corner past a sea of Inter bodies.
Phil Foden had the chance to finish off the Italians, but keeper Andre Onana denied him — just as he had Erling Harland in the first half with a smart stop.
Inter, whose last of three European Cups was in 2010, rallied late and when Akanji misjudged a ball into the box, Federico Dimarco’s header looped over Ederson but against the bar, and the fullback then sent the rebound against the lurking Romelu Lukaku.
The Belgian striker — another Chelsea player, but currently on loan to the Italians — almost dashed City’s dreams, but was denied by Ederson’s knee when he was just four yards out.
“At this level when you don’t score, things get complicated,” said keeper Onana. “We have to learn from this.”
As the song, “Paradise,” rang out amid the celebrations, that’s where City were.
“We made history, not only for the Champions League but with the Treble,” said matchwinner Rodri. “We made history in England and in Europe and that was the step we needed to raise City to a top team.”
There can be no doubt now that City are the top team.
They will face Sevilla in Athens for the UEFA Super Cup in August and then it is Saudi Arabia in December for the FIFA Club World Cup, where their next target will be to become the world’s best side.
It is what the great teams, managers and players always do, look for the next challenge — and Guardiola will no doubt push them again to build on this success and stay at the very top.
“We have to defend what we achieved this season — that’s how it works,” said striker Haaland. “In a month, two months everything is forgotten and we have to attack it again.”
And when comparisons were drawn with 14-time European champions Real Madrid, Guardiola joked: “We are just 13 away from them, just 13, so be careful Real Madrid because we are on our way. If you sleep a little bit we will catch you.”
On a more serious note, though, he added: “Now we have the first and the people can say ‘Manchester City have already the first Champions League.’
“The entire world said if we don’t win it we won’t be complete, it won’t be enough.
“But I don’t want, after one Champions League, to disappear. So, we have to work harder in the next few years, next season and be there.
“There are teams who win the Champions League after one or two seasons and disappear. We have to avoid it. Knowing where we’ve been, this is not going to happen.”